´ Steel Curtain Rising: November 2013

Who gets the game ball for the Steelers win over the Texans?

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Injury Replacement Gets Injured; Steelers Place Fernando Velasco on IR

Lightning, Steelers Nation now knows, does strike twice. Or three times. Or four times. Just as center Fernando Velasco who tore his Achilles tendon in the Steelers 22-20 loss to Baltimore.

As documented by ESPN analyst John Clayton, injuries to NFL offensive lineman are way up. And at the same time, offensive line depth has gotten thin as a result of the CBA.

For as harsh as those trends are, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been leading the way, and they were well ahead of the curve. The Steelers played musical chairs on offensive line in 2010, 2011, and 2012. The hope was 2013 would be different.
  • The Steelers front office went as far as to double down on faith that offensive line injuries would not strike twice.
So it was that the Pittsburgh Steelers went into the 2013 season with 6 NFL caliber offensive lineman. So thin was their depth that Kelvin Beachum, was their back up at center. 7 plays into the season, Maurkice Pouncey tore his ACL as David DeCastro was attempting a chop block, and the march to 0-4 was on.

The early word on Velasco was that he had injured an ankle. This was good news, as his injury looked far worse on the field, and indeed, Velasco’s reaction suggested that he knew he suffered something serious.
  • Steelers Nation should have instinctively known that this wouldn’t have been so simple.
And in fact it was not. Velasco was put in injured reserve ending his season. Velasco, the injury replacement has now himself been lost for the year.

The Steelers will likely start Cody Wallace at center vs. the Dolphins. However, management is not hedging their bets. The Steelers signed center Eric Olsen and tackle Rashad Butler. To make way for the move, the Steelers waived cornerback DeMarcus Van Dyke.
  • Olsen’s signing is easy to understand. But what about Butlers?
Well, both Kelvin Beachum and Mike Adams also suffered injuries vs. the Ravens. Musical chairs on offensive line it seems will remain a familiar tune for the balance of 2013.

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Friday, November 29, 2013

Steelers Comeback Effort Falls Short

This one lived up to ever bit of the lore laid down from previous installments of Steelers-Ravens rivalry.
  • There was scuffling. 
  • Hitting was hard
  • Players got injured
  • Collisions concussed  
  • Dramatic comebacks were in order
Unfortunately, however, the Steelers showed up on the wrong side of the scoreboard despite some very high level play from a number of key players. 

The Steelers-Raven's game ended near 2:00 am here in Buenos Aires, and unlike the US neither Thanksgiving nor the Friday afterwards are holidays. Steel Curtain Rising will have a full write up and analysis of the game over the weekend.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Cameron Heyward - Reason for Steelers Nation to Give Thanks

Since Chuck Noll’s arrival in 1969, defense has formed the backbone with the franchise’s legacy of excellence. Irnoically enough, the Steelers Nation cannot lay claim to the same sort of unbroken line of succession on the defensive line the way it does with its Linebacker Legacy.

The original Steel Curtain, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, Joe Green, and Dwight White set the gold-standard for excellence at the position. Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton deserved mention alongside them. In between them the Steelers have started a spectrum of players from the very good Joel Steed, to the good such as Gerald Williams, Keith Willis and Kevin Henry, to the “not so much” - Keith Gary, Aaron Jones, and Donald Evans.

As we do every year at Thanksgiving, Steel Curtain Rising stops to take stock and give thanks for something Steelers related.

At Thanksgiving 2014 Steel Curtain Rising stops to recognize the blossoming of a young defensive lineman who one day might be worth of mention with franchise greats.
When the Steelers picked Heyward in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Kevin Colbert proclaimed it was a great day for the franchise. Heyward of course was the son of Pitt great Iron Head Craig Heyward. A player with deep ties to community of Pittsburgh was coming home.

Yet after two years, Heyward remained an enigma to Steelers Nation. Stuck behind Smith, Brett Keisel, and Ziggy Hood, Heyward looked strong when he got playing time, but why didn’t he get more? It took an 0-4 start, but Steelers Nation got its wish as Mike Tomlin started Heyward over Hood.
  • And Heyward has been a one man wrecking crew since then.
3-4 defensive ends in Dick LeBeau’s system are not supposed to get gaudy statistics. Yet in 8 starts he’s registered 3 sacks. But that number, while impressive, does not measure his impact, his On the Field Presence. In a short time as a starter, Heyward is showing a knack for being around the ball at the right moment, and for making “timely plays in a timely manner.”
  • To wit, he’s already recovered two fumbles (yes, that is counting Jason Worild’s strip-sack vs. the Bills)
  • Although uncredited, Heyward clearly hit Matthew Stafford helping force a game-sealing interception vs. Detroit
Heyward still has a ways to go, and still must of course sustain the flashes he’s shown. But he certainly is one reason for Steelers Nation to be thankful this Thanksgiving.

Happy Thanksgiving Steelers Nation

Football and the Steelers are of course only a small part of life. And fortunately, I have many, many non-football reasons to be thankful at this time of year. I sincerely hope you can say the same.

And with that, Steel Curtain Rising wishes everyone in Steelers Nation a very Happy Thanksgiving.

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Monday, November 25, 2013

Steelers Report Card vs. Browns @ Cleveland

From the grade book of a teacher who couches the reality that he has seen his star pupil improve in each passing week against the fact that the level of difficulty will continue to increase from week to week, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the win over the Browns in Cleveland.

Is it the no huddle? Is it better pass protection? Does the no huddle lead to better pass protection? No one can say for sure. But what is doubtless is that Ben Roethlisberger has been playing better, if far from flawless, football these past three weeks. He's taken fewer sacks and is not turning over the ball. While Ben must take responsibility for the Steelers poor third down conversion rate as well as repeated Red Zone failures, against the Browns he was an efficient, effective passer on a day when throwing the ball was not easy. Grade:  B+

Running Backs
At some point this week commentators will quantify the Steelers lack of a 100 yard rusher and hint that Le'Veon Bell is therefore a bust. The truth is that just as higher passing totals are the new norm (400 yards passing is the new 300 yards passing) lower rushing totals of all measures are also the new norm. The Steelers set out to establish the run and even the combined efforts of Bell, Felix Jones, and Jonathan Dwyer didn't add up to 100 yards.

Ergo they failed, right? Not quite.

While the Steelers rushing effort will do little to evoke memories of the Cowher era, let alone the heyday of the 70's, the truth is is that the running back trio had little room to run, but on carry after carry keep their legs moving, when they were often gang tackled. This might not have been efficient, but it was effective, burning precious time off the clock and forcing Cleveland deeper into desperation mode. The running back's contributions to the passing game should not be short-shifted either. Grade: C+

Tight Ends
Heath Miller had five catches several of which helped sustain drives, and his blocking appeared to improve. Neither Paulson nor Palmer did anything of note. Grade: C+

Wide Receivers 
It was a quieter day for the Steelers wide receivers than has been the usual of late, and only Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders had catches. However, both men made their catches count, as both came down with touchdowns, and both managed to make key third down receptions. Brown showed he can play with the best NFL corners. Grade: B+

Offensive Line
For the first time since before the invention of the rock, Ben Roethlisberger was not sacked a single time. OK, that's an exaggeration, but what is now the Steelers starting offensive line did not allow a sack, and kept its quarterback clean in front of a tough defensive line. If that is a positive, then the poor run blocking was a negative, although it should be noted that Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton is creating Cleveland's defense in Pittsburgh's image, and the first premise of the Steelers 3-4 is stop the run. Grade: C+

Defensive Line
With each passing week, Cameron Heyward continues to improve, and that impact is being felt in the final results of games. Ziggy Hood, while clearly out shadowed by his fellow first round draft pick, is also playing well. Al Woods looked far better in relief of Steve McLendon that he had a right to look based on spot duty. Grade: A

Who exactly is it that says Jason Worilds was a bust, and a waste of a pick with Sean Lee on the board? Worilds might not live up to Lee, but he clearly is filling his own shoes well, registering six quarterback hits on the day -- more than the rest of the Steelers defense combined. Lawrence Timmons continues to make key tackles. Vince Williams was on the field for much of the day and did little to attract attention to himself, which is perhaps for the best. Jarvis Jones played well, but has done anything to make the coaches choice between starting him or Worilds difficult. Grade:  B

Three forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery, two sacks and a pick six? And this is the secondary that was left for dead after the Patriots Pulverizing? William Gay had what was perhaps his best game of the season. Will Allen was attentive and made his second splash play in as may weeks. Troy Polamalu of course created two turnovers of his own and had another almost interception. The only negative on the day was Ike Taylor, who go schooled badly by Josh Gordon. Granted, some of it was garbage time glory, but a 200 yard receiver is not something the report card can write off, and it brings down the grade considerably. Grade:  B

Special Teams
Brown had a 14 yard return which set up a score. Mat McBriar had a hot and cold day, although conditions made punting difficult. Shaun Suisham had a good day under difficult conditions. The Steelers return coverage on kickoffs was adequate. Grade:  B

Whether it is because of the maturation of younger players, or the return of more experienced ones to the line up, with each week Dick LeBeau's defense is finding ways to make the type of splash plays that change outcomes of games in a way that simply limiting yards does not. Todd Haley's still must find a way to coax more production in the Red Zone, but his game plan vs. the Browns cannot be faulted. While this remains an on-going challenge, Mike Tomlin has kept his players united, focused and fighting and that is both to his and the players credit. Grade: A-

Unsung Hero Award
He only caught 5 passes for 52 yards, a partly and pedestrian sums by 2013 standards. But if numbers do not lie, too often they do fail to tell the full truth. Each one of his catches went for a first down except for one. That catch of course was a touchdown. The Steelers struggled to convert time of possession on much of the day, yet they dominated in time of possession. They don't do that if this player does deliver on those key catches, and for the Emmanuel Sanders wins the Unsung Hero Award for the Steelers victory at Cleveland.

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Blitzburgh Retruns as Steelers Blast Browns 27-11

The Pittsburgh Steelers began the week at 4-6 and, as Steel Curtain Rising observed, while it is no midway mark to aspire to, at 4-6 both respectability and futility remain within striking distance.
  • From 4-6, for which destination would the Steelers depart?
While the Cleveland Browns had lost 4 of five, they’d just rebounded with a victory over the defending Champion Baltimore Ravens. The Browns had also beaten the Bengals at home and in fact, no AFC North Team had won on the road in ’13. Sure  the Steelers have owned the Browns since ’99, but losses at Cleveland Stadium had marred the Steelers ’09 and ’12 seasons.
  • The Browns also carried a 4-6 record into the game and had an equal shot in a very open playoff field.
In short, in the middle of the Dawg Pound a bone laid bare on the ground, the only question was which team would come away with it?

Seeds Sown During Slow Start for Second Half Fireworks

With temperatures in the 20’s and strong winds gusting off of Lake Eire, this game figured to be won in the trenches. And that did not seem to favor the Steelers offense. Yet Todd Haley didn’t let paper match ups dictate their strategy, and immediately set out to establish the run.

On the second play from scrimmage, Le’Veon Bell took the ball and was hit as soon as he reached the second level. He kept his legs churning and carried the pile 13 yards.
  • As impressive as the play was, it was not to be a signature play of the game for the Steelers.
The Brown’s defense stopped the Steelers cold at their 29, and yet another promising drive would end with a Shaun Suisham field goal. The Browns defense was only getting started. The next 3 Steelers drives ended in Mat McBriar punts. Tack on an opening drive field goal for the Steelers, and in the early going it looked as if the kickers might dominate this game.
  • Yet that was not to be the story of the game either, but this was foreshadowed when, Cameron Heyward sacked Jason Campbell out of field goal range forcing yet another punt.
Three punts later, it happened again, as Jason Worilds knocked Campbell down, forcing him from the game for a play and subsequently forcing another punt.
  • The Steelers offense took this as an opportunity to strike blood.
Antonio Brown got things started with 14 yard punt return, and it took Ben Roethlisberger only two plays to find him again on a 41 yard touchdown pass where Joe Haden was just a step slow. Troy Polamalu struck next, stripping Chris Ogbonnaya of the ball and recovering. The Steelers offense marched down the field reaching Cleveland’s 14. Keeping to form the Steelers Red Zone offense sputtered there again and had to settle for 3.

But in just under 2 minutes the Steelers breathed life into an otherwise sterile game by putting 10 points on the board. And the fireworks were just getting started….

Blitzburgh Returns, for One Game at Least

One of the biggest weaknesses exposed during the Steelers 0-4 start and in their other two offenses has been an inability to consistently pressure the quarterback and, as a consequence, create turnovers.
  • For one game at least the Steelers turned that tendency on its head.
While the trend began in the first half, it wasn’t until the second that Dick LeBeau unleashed his defense on the Cleveland Browns, and he did it with a vengeance. Cleveland’s first six 2nd half possessions went like this punt, fumble lost, missed filed goal, fumble lost, and pick six. First Jason Campbell ran for his life, and then it was Brandon Weeden’s turn.

Perhaps more importantly, the Steelers accomplished this as a team effort, with contributions coming from all corners:
  • William Gay, had a strip sack and a pick six
  • Jason Worilds hit the passer at least six times
  • Al Woods registered two sacks and added two more quarterback hits
  • Polamalu reached the quarterback for a strip sack
  • Will Allen returned a forced fumble for 49 yards
  • Cameron Heyward recovered a fumble registered another QB hit
The Steelers offense did its part too, shaking off its Red Zone malaise to convert Gay’s strip sack and Allen’s return into a touchdown in a single play, as Roethlisberger and Emmanuel Sanders hooked up for a touchdown.

Credit Cleveland’s defense. The Steelers offense dominated time of possession to the tune of 33:39 to 26:21, and only scored 10 non-turnover aided points to show for it. But the Steelers offense did what it needed to:
  • Establish a lead
  • Take advantage of turnovers
  • Burn off the clock
And while it would be hypocritical to excuse the Steelers partly 4-14 third down conversion rate, the Steelers were in fact intent on running the ball and this led several third and longs. The Browns knew this and played accordingly, but the Steelers remained undaunted.

It may not have been pretty, but the Steelers offense did enough to win.

Steelers Nation Turns Attention to Thanksgiving in Charm City

The Pittsburgh Steelers have now won 5 of their last seven and, with three straight wins, have the beginnings of a streak. The offense’s struggles vs. Cleveland, particularly in the Red Zone show that this Steelers team remains a work in progress, but their 27-11 victory shows that tremendous progress has been made since starting 0-4.
  • But just how much progress has Mike Tomlin led this team to?
For that Steelers Nation will get its answer in just four days, when the Steelers travel to Baltimore, where they will once again attempt to snap their Thanksgiving Day drought.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, the Steelers @ 4-6 & Two Different and Correct Decisions

4-6 is a curious mark for an NFL team.

Clearly, no coach or player wears 4-6 like a badge of honor. But if the balance between 4-6 is weighted a little too heavily towards Bill Cowher’s “Fine line between winning and losing,” it also proves that that line is indeed fine.
  • Double digits, while improbable, in either column remain legitimate possibilities.
Which brings us to the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers and, yes, their 1989 predecessors. Mike Tomlin’s current edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers record stands at 4-6 after ten games. Chuck Noll’s ’89 edition also held a 4-6 record.

Amidst the full glow of the Steelers victory over the Lions, their second consecutive victory, a reporter asked Mike Tomlin, indirectly, about the Steelers playoff chances.  “I won’t play ball” retorted the Tomlinator.
  • Tomlin’s response was the correct one
In contrast, the 1989 Steelers arrived at their 4-6 record with a head wind formed by an embarrassing loss to Denver, and their third shut out of the year suffered vs. Chicago. During his weekly press conference reporters asked Chuck Noll if he was content to write of the season as a rebuilding year. “No” The Emperor deadpanned, the Steelers would gun for the playoffs. Period.
  • Noll’s reponse was also the correct one
Now let’s find out why.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Then and Now

The reason why both coaches can correctly make different decisions facing the same situation lies in the role that attitude plays in forming a football team.

Chuck Noll had 4 Lombardi’s in the bag but the association of words like “contender” or even “champion” were distant memories. The Steelers hadn’t even been to the playoffs since 1984. Dwayne Woodruff was the lone hold out from the Super Steelers.
  • Aside from Woodruff, Noll could count on one hand his playoff veterans. 
For the record, they were Tunch Ilkin, Louis Lipps, Keith Willis, Bryan Hinkle, and David Little.

To put that into context, imagine that Ike Taylor was the longest tenured player for the Steelers. Imagine the Steelers, with Chad Pennington as their starting quarterback, losing the 2008 AFC Championship to a Ben Roethlisberger led Denver Broncos team. (After upsetting John Elway at Mile High, Noll’s ’84 Steelers lost to Dan Marino’s Dolphins).

Imagine that from that '08 team all that remain are Rashard Mendenhall, Brett Keisel, Larry Foote, Marvel Smith, and James Harrison.

This was a young team, a team that no one expected to do anything. Yet Noll believed in them, and he told them that even after they'd lost their first two games by a combined score of 92-10. (As documented by Behind the Steel Curtain’s Michael Bean.)
  • By affirming their goal of reaching the playoffs, Noll was giving his team a reason to believe in themselves.
Mike Tomlin’s got a different task. He inherited a team where Super Bowls measure success. He’s got more Super Bowl ring holders than Noll had playoff veterans.
  • But for all that, Tomlin’s got his own demons to fight.
Too often, Tomlin teams have played down to the competition (Raiders game, ’12 or ’13 version anyone?) Add to that mix a group of young players that still need to learn how to win games.

Brett Keisel’s comments last year following the Baltimore game about younger players needed to understand that it was no time to let up are particular instructive, especially when you consider just how badly the Steelers laid an egg vs. San Diego last season.

Chuck Noll needed to put the promised land on the horizon for the 1989 Steelers. They needed a far-reaching in sight to drive them through their remaining six games.

Tomlin’s Steelers, in contrast, are the driver that has a nasty habit of rear-ending the car in front of him, and therefore cannot look at billboards so they stay firmly focused on the road.

Two coaches, same situation, same franchise, opposition decisions. Yet both are right.

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Steelers Report Card vs. Detroit Lions @ Heinz Field

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who wants to extol his star pupil for “having found something deep inside himself” but who does so with the knowledge the he said the same thing a year ago after the road win at Baltimore, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the victory over Detroit. As a caveat, no other Steelers report cards have been consulted prior to this posting.

Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t perfect. In fact, during the second and third quarter one could fairly say he struggled mightily. And if he did suffer some Red Zone drops, he also badly overthrew Paulson in the end zone. Does that matter? Yes, but only a little. Ben Roethlisberger was good when the Steelers needed him to be, driving the Steelers to two consecutive opening scores, keeping drives alive even if they resulted in field goals, and most especially on the 97 yard, 8 minute go ahead touchdown drive that was simply vintage Ben. Grade:  A-

Running Backs
The Steelers totaled 40 yards rushing. Le'Veon Bell averaged 2 yards a carry. Felix Jones had one carry for a loss. Therefore it was a bad day for the running backs, right? Not exactly. The Steelers really didn’t try to run much. But Le’Veon Bell made an impact in the passing game, especially with his 3 yard catch on fourth down. Jonathan Dwyer likewise got the Steelers into the Red Zone on the go ahead catch, and Will Johnson delivered when it mattered, when the ball came his way in the end zone. The failed rushing attempts at the goal line cannot be overlooked, but this group found ways to deliver when necessary. Grade:  C+

Tight Ends
As a downside, and a major one, the Steelers tight ends are not helping much in the running game, and the offensive line’s run blocking could use some help (see below.) But Heath Miller worked himself into the offense, catching a season high 8 balls, making everyone count, although the end zone drop must be accounted for.  Grade:  C

Wide Receivers
Who was it that the Steelers let go to Miami? At some point no one will remember, because Antonio Brown will make them forget. Brown was explosive, turning two short passes into touchdowns early in the game, and generally doing what he does – finding ways to get open and catch the ball when the team needs him. Jerricho Cotchery has another specialty, and that’s the Red Zone. Cotchery got the Steelers into position for the go-ahead touchdown, and then perfectly sold the flanker screen on the insurance TD. Markus Wheaton got his first real action of the season was a welcome sight as he caught 3 passes. Grade:  A

Offensive Line
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” to borrow a quote from BTSC, such was the offensive line. The Steelers attempts to rush the ball were nothing more than an exercise in futility. This was made poignantly evident by the Steelers woeful inability to punch it in to the end zone in short yardage. Yet, for as bad as that was, the Steelers offensive line made up by provided Ben Roethlisberger the best run blocking he has had all season. Ben was sacked once and only hit twice, and its no coincidence that he also played his best game.  Grade:  C+

Defensive Line
The Detroit Lions came into the game with a strong rushing game which looked to dominate what has been a very well Steelers rush defense. On paper, it should have happened that way. But that’s why we play games. Cameron Heyward’s stats do not do justice to the disruptive force he is becoming up front, and he clearly hit Matthew Stafford on the interception. Ziggy Hood registered a sack, made two tackles for a loss and another QB hit. This unit played well. Grade:  B+

As usual the Steelers linebacking corps was led by none other than Lawrence Tim… Actually, Jason Worilds led the group and did so in fine fashion with a sack, tackle for a loss and a quarterback pressure. Lawrence Timmons was next, who was all over the field and had the presence of mind to recover the first fumble of the day. Jarvis Jones also got into the act, batting down two passes, including a key one on Detroit’s comeback attempt. All in all, a solid day from the linebackers.  Grade:  A-

If ever there was a case for invoking the parable of The Prodigal Son in football analysis this was it. The Steelers secondary started stopping Detroit’s platinum powered passing game cold. Then Matthew Stafford and Megatron aka Calvin Johnson thoroughly torched them for 27 points in a single quarter. But then the secondary followed the flight of the phoenix, rising from the ashes. Along the way Troy Polamalu negated Reggie Bush, Ryan Clark KOed Megatron in the end zone, Ike Taylor had a solid 3 quarters, and William Gay did not see a pass completed against him all day (even if he did benefit from drops.) Oh, and the secondary came up with a game-sealing interception. The report card grades on performance and results. The results speak for themselves. Grade:  A-

Special Teams
Shaun Suisham was 3-3 and if you think that’s small potatoes consider the fact that the Steelers margin of victory was 10 points. The Lions did have one above average kick return and another above average punt return, but no damage was done. Mat McBriar shanked one punt but boomed off a 70 yarder. The Steelers return game was average. What wasn’t average was the attention to detail by the field goal kicking unit. A year ago the Steelers got caught asleep at the switch twice on fake punts. This time the Lions thought they could sneak a fake field goal in. Steve McLendon didn’t bite, smothering their punter while Cam Heyward forced a fumble which Ryan Clark recovered. Grade:  A-

The quality of the game plans devised by Dick LeBeau and Todd Haley spoke for themselves. But Coaching isn’t just about roster choices, practice schedules, play calls and other game-day decisions.
  • Coaching is about establishing a culture.
Two weeks ago after the Steelers suffered a pulverizing vs. the Patriots the likes of which could have folded the will of any NFL team. That did not happen.

The same thing could have occurred during the Lions game itself. The Steelers, sitting at 3-6, could have easily decided to mail it in and accept 3-7 as inevitable. But this group has too much pride, too much confidence, and too much belief in one another. Not only did they not quit, they corrected their errors, remained focused and committed to themselves and one an other. That is to the credit of every man in the locker room, but it starts at the top, with their field general, Mike Tomlin.  Grade:  A

Unsung Hero Award
This gentleman joined the team in the 2010 free agent spending frenzy and sat on the bench for two years. Last year he started on the bench but came off it, and that’s when the line started moving up on the defense’s play. Yet, when he defected to Dallas, hardly a word was said. No one questioned the impact of his absence. But after the Cowboys picked him up, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin wasted no time in bringing him back. Vs. the Lions you could see why, as he led the team in tackles, defensed a pass, forced the first fumble, and essential ended the game with an interception. And for that safety Will Allen is the Unsung Hero Award winner for the victory vs. Detroit.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Steelers Tame Lions, Megatron, 37-27 an Heinz Field

Several factors determine success or failure on the football field - talent, coaching, preparation, or perhaps just the bounce of the ball. But there are defining moments in a game, in a season, or even in a career, where circumstances force the men on the field to dig to find something deep inside them that takes them beyond where simple talent and coaching dictate.

Vs. the Detroit Lions, the Pittsburgh Steelers had one of those moments. The only question is whether the moment will define the season, the careers, or simply the game for the men on the field.

Steelers Start Fast Out of the Gate

Throughout 2013 Todd Haley has been scripting Pittsburgh's opening drives and all season long the entire Steelers team has followed the same script -- starting ineptly slow out of the gate. By any measure the Steelers 1st quarter performance has been anemic.

Versus the Lions, Haley opened his bag of tricks and allowed Ben Roethlisberger to unleash the no huddle.
  • The results spoke for themselves. 
Three minutes and fifty eight seconds into the game, Ben had gone 5 for 5, Heath Miller was back in the game, the Steelers had converted two third downs, and Antonio Brown had transformed a short check down pass into a 34 yard touchdown.

The Steelers defense also did its part too. On its opening possession Detroit chanced it it on 4th and 2 only to see Ike Taylor successfully defend Megatron aka Calvin Johnson. On the next series the defense forced a Detroit 3 and out.

Ben Roethlisberger only needed 4 plays to take the score to 14-0, hooking up with Brown for a 45 yard touchdown.
  • The route that many predicted looked to be on, except that the Steelers were the routers and not the routees.
As the first 15 minutes expired, it wasn’t too much to ask  if the Steelers had authored their most stunning first quarter drive since the 2005 AFC Divisional playoffs. And yet the faced the same question – can they keep it up?

Lions, Megatron Roar to Life in Second Quarter

Execution has not been the Steelers problem in 2013. Even at 0-4 and 2-6 this team has shown it was capable of making plays. Now, making plays on a consistent basis has been an entirely different question.

So it was only fitting that:
  • Detroit got on the board early in the second quarter
The Steelers defense responded with a forced fumble. The offense promptly moved to the 7, where the Steelers would of course settle for 3.
  • Matthew Stafford roared back with a 79 yard strike to Megatron aka Calvin Johnson
The Steelers drove again, this time reaching Detroit’s twelve where Ben Roethlisberger got sacked, ending another trip to the Red Zone with a kick for three. That set the stage for one of the more humiliating 7 minute spans the history of the Steelers defense – and that’s including the Pulverizing vs. the Patriots.
  • It took Stafford and Megatron six plays to hook up for their next touchdown
  • Steelers responded with a 3 and out
  • This time Stafford only hit Megatron once, who didn’t score but set up a touchdown run,
  • With 1:42 left in the half, the Steelers managed to go as far back from their 20 as their 4 before punting from their 10
  • With 1:02 remaining Stafford and Megatron failed to make end zone magic again, but they did hook up twice as the Lions kicked a field goal.
When the dust settled, in one quarter Calvin Johnson had 6 catches for 179 yards 2 touchdowns, Detroit had scored 27 points and the Steelers were down 27-20 in a game they’d once led 17-3...

Defense Quietly Digs In, While Offense Struggles

Heinz Field began emptying out at the half. Twitter lit up with calls to fire Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, Todd Haley, and/or Dick LeBeau and perhaps Art Rooney II. After seeing so many Steeler self-destructions, it’s not a surprise that Steelers Nation was giving up.
  • The bigger question was, would the Steelers give up on themselves?
When all is said and done, Ben Roethlisberger will be remembered for his 4 touchdown, 367 yard passing performance vs. the Lions. And so he should.

But the fact that will be forgotten is that in between a fast start and a strong finish, Big Ben struggled mightily in the middle, going two drives without a completion, and another where he badly over threw a WIDE OPEN David Paulson in the end zone from the 1, resulting in yet another Red Zone failure.

After carving up the Steelers secondary in the second quarter, Matthew Stafford only completed three passes the rest of the day. Unfortunately for the Steelers, all three of those completions came just after the Steelers made it 27-23. On the strength of those three throws and some decent runs by Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, Detroit drove to the Steelers 10, and from there Stafford targeted Calvin Johnson again.
  • This time Ryan Clark was there, KOing Megatron and saving a touchdown in the process.
Lion’s coach Jim Schwartz was feeling his oats nonetheless. Rather than make it a 7 point game he went for all the marbles with a fake field goal. Punter Sam Martin never had a chance. Steve McLendon and Cameron Heyward stopped him cold, forced a fumble and Ryan Clark recovered.

Now the Steelers offense, the same unit which had sent its punter on the field 5 times since the first half, only needed to go 97 yards....

Roethlisberger, Steelers Dig Deep for Fine Fourth

...As a franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers may have almost certainly put together finer fourth quarters. But its been a long time since Steelers Nation has witnessed the Steelers making such a strong 4th quarter statement.

The statement was so strong, because the Steelers saw plays from the top to bottom of their roster, as veterans worked in tandem with rookies, mentoring them on the art of learning to win. Consider:
  • At 3rd and 9, with Ben Roethlisberger standing in his own end zone, Antonio Brown caught a 16 yard pass
  • On 3rd and 12, Ben Roethlisberger saw nothing and ran for 10
  • On 4th and 2, Le’Veon Bell, who did nothing running all day, caught a 3 yard pass
  • Will Johnson, who has not touched the ball all year, scooted into the end zone untouched and caught the go-ahead touchdown for the Steelers
Next it was the defense’s turn, and with over 4 minutes to go, they needed to make it happen. On third and 10 Stafford ran the exact same play to Calvin Johnson that netted Detroit 79 yards and 6 points in the first half.
  • Will Allen, however, read the play from the very beginning and picked off the ball, returning it to the Lion’s 34. 
After some dinking and dunking, Ben Roethlisberger called a fake screen, which sprung Jerricho Cotchery wide open into the end zone giving Pittsburgh a10 point lead.

Jarvis Jones batted down passes and Ziggy Hood ended the game with a sack, ensuring that Detroit’s last drives was nothing more than a desperation gasp.

After giving up 27 points in 1 quarter, the Steelers had shut out the Lions and come back to win the game.

All This Has Happened Before... Will It Happen Again?

Steelers Nation has every right to celebrate such a dramatic victory, but they should do so with their memories open.

One year ago today, another Steelers team, minus several key starters, authored a similar game, complete with a dramatic 4th quarter comeback. That of course was the Charlie Batch inspired road victory over Baltimore, a win that seem to signal that an otherwise uneven Steelers team had gotten its act together.
  • Unfortunately, the Steelers have been a model of inconsistency since then.
Versus the Detroit Lions the Pittsburgh Steelers swooned downward hard and fast. Yet what they found that allowed them to rebound was real.

Now the question for Mike Tomlin is can he ensure that what they found remains both real and lasting...?

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Steelers Report Card vs. Bills @ Heinz Field

Taken from the grade book of a teach who thinks he just saw his student take a very important first step – winning back some self respect, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the victory over Buffalo.

On a day when rumors flew about his plans to ask for a trade, Ben Roethlisberger had a so-so day. Given the play selection in the Red Zone, its hard to hang the Steelers 3 field goals on him. And the Steelers did go 8 for 17 on third downs. But Roethlisberger was careless with the ball at times, and Ben missed a good number of open receivers. Overall, a solid performance, but not one without its flaws. Grade:  B-

Running Backs
Numbers don’t lie but statistics mislead. Learning that Le’Veon Bell only averaged 2.5 yards a carry was a minor shock, because he ran well – when not hit behind the line of scrimmage. Bell’s 4 yard rush was a thing of beauty, and one of the season’s rare examples of the Steelers “Imposing their Will.” Jonathan Dwyer’s back to back 3rd and one conversions cut from the same cloth. Felix Jones did a respectable job with his four carries. Dwyer was effective in the passing game, and Bell showed for the second week in a row that he can make something out of a throw away play. Grade:  B+

Tight Ends
Heath Miller’s return bought a much needed boost to the entire offense, and the defense clearly has to account for him. But with each week his role continues to diminish. Perhaps he came back too soon from injury. Either way he was not a factor in this game. Michael Palmer caught one pass for eight yards, his first as a Steeler. Grade:  C

Wide Receivers
Word was early in the week that Mike Tomlin had benched Antonio Brown late in the week vs. the Patriots. If Tomin was trying to light a fire under Brown, he succeeded, as Brown had 6 catches for 104 yards with a Wallacesque 17 yard average. For the second straight week Jerricho Cotchery struck gold in the end zone. Emmanuel Sanders was less effective in the passing game, but took what looked to be a broken reverse 25 yards. Markus Wheaton didn’t have a catch, but showed a lot of heart and hustle in making the tackle on the interception. Grade:  A-

Offensive Line
The good news is that when the lineup when Beachum, Foster, Velasco, DeCastro, and Gilbert things went, well, although Kelvin Beachum did not have a good day. The bad news is that when Guy Whimper was in, be it at guard or tackle, the Steelers struggled. Still, the offensive line played well enough to win, and their blocking on the third and short conversions as well as the rushing touchdown was something to behold – Mike Adam’s play was particularly encouraging, as he pancaked his man. David DeCastro’s flash of a nasty streak was also encouraging.  Grade:  C+

Defensive Line
The Bills came into the game rushing the ball. The Steelers saw to it that they did not leave it that way. The Steelers shut down Buffalo’s rushing attack. Cameron Heyward was a man on fire, leading the group in tackles, sacking E.J. Manuel, recovering a fumble that erroneously got called back. Grade:  B

Lawrence Timmons KOed Manuel when he tried to take off and run. LaMarr Woodley was excellent in run support. Jason Worilds had a strip sack that was taken away form him in error. Jarvis Jones had his first NFL sack, one that helped end a drive. Beyond simply stopping the run, the defense added emphasis to each tackle, throwing the runners backwards. It might have been symbolic, but it was emblematic of the unit’s play. Grade:  A-

Ryan Clark had his second interception and returned it deep into Bills territory. Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, and Cortez Allen all defended passes. Shamarko Thomas looked good until he got injured. The Bills were a woeful 3-14 on third down, and that only happens if the secondary is doing its job. Grade:  A-

Special Teams
Mat McBriar might want to consider renting in Pittsburgh, as he will not be there long if the 25 and 36 yard punts continue. Shaun Suisham was 3-3, given the Steelers a comfortable margin of victory. What’s more his kickoffs were deep, even if he did land one out of bounds. However, the real star of the show was Antonio Brown, who electrified with punt returns of 24 and 50 yards, both of which set up scores. A mixed bag from special teams, but the positives outweighed the negatives. Grade: B+

Any discussion of coaching must begin with a nod to Mike Tomlin. The Steelers loss vs. the Patriots was embarrassing on multiple levels. Tomlin, to his credit, dove on a grenade for both his players and the front office during his weekly press conference. But a loss like that can send a already reeling team such as the Steelers into full fledged meltdown, making them easying pickings for fellow bottom feeders like the Bills. The Steelers instead were the ones doing the feeding, and that goes to Tomlin’s credit.

Dick LeBeau likewise gets credit for ensuring that his unit bounced back. YES, they were dominating a rookie quarterback on a team that is in perpetual rebuilding. But winning the ones you’re supposed to and doing it in dominating fashion represents and accomplishment when you’re 2-6. Todd Haley however must accept blame for the Steeler 3 field goals in 5 Red Zone attempts. Likewise, the decision to continue playing with 30 seconds remaining in the first half was a good one. The 5 and 6 yard play calls were not a good move. Overall, however, a solid effort from the coaches.  Grade:  B+

Unsung Hero Award
C.J. Spiller might have entered the game thinking he was going to have a good day. His first two runs went for 3 yards a piece, not bad but not too good either. His next two went for losses. The tackler on both was William Gay. Gay in fact led the Steelers in tackles, tackles for losses, and he also defended a pass. Others might have gotten the “Splash” plays, but it was Gay’s down in and down out consistency that characterized this defense’s dominate performance, and for this he wins the Unsung Hero Award.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Steelers Bounce Back vs. Bills, 23-10

The Pittsburgh Steelers entered the game vs. the Buffalo Bills with something on the line. Forget “Contender vs. Pretender” status. Ditto playoff considerations. This wasn’t even about relevancy. No, this was about something else.

The Pittsburgh Steelers started the season 0-4. After a two game respite, they lost to the Oakland Raiders – a feat that takes a tremendous effort. They followed that by helping Tom Brady rekindle is 2004 form. The Steelers, it seemed, had become the kind of team that other NFL franchises look to when in need of a rebound.

The Buffalo Bills came to town with an 2-6 record of their own. They run the ball well and sack the passer; the Steelers can neither defend the run nor protect their passer. Buffalo was also getting its quarterback back. The Steeler, it seemed, were just what the Dr. ordered.

In other words, the Steelers entered the Bills game fighting for nothing less than their self-respect.

SOS – Same Old Steelers in the First Quarter

Self respect would not come easy for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who began the game by moving the ball down the line in workman like fashion, until Ben Roethlisberger threw a horrible pass that Jarius Byrd picked off and return 57 yards to the Steelers 29. (Kudos the Markus Wheaton for the hustle he showed in making the stop.)
  • Yes, Steelers Nation, we have seen this movie before.
  • The Bills moved the ball swiftly to the 1 yard line, and for the first seven minutes Pittsburgh looked destined to be Buffalo’s punching bag.
But the Steelers defense dug in, and forced the Bills to settle for 3.

The script however changed little from there. Not only did the Steelers go 3 and out on their next two drives, these were bookended  by Mat McBriar punts of 27 and 36 yards. Yes, the Steelers defense held on each of them. But it was a familiar refrain, Steelers offense can’t move the ball, giving the opponent short fields and forcing the Steelers offense to work with longer ones.

If Style Points Only Counted…

The performance of the Steelers offense in the next quarter, and the rest of the game for that matter, can hardly be termed “dominant.”
  • Dominant offenses do not settle for 3 field goals in 5 trips to the Red Zone
But if the Steelers didn’t win any points for artistic merit or technical execution, there was something present vs. the Bills that had been missing in previous weeks.

Both execution errors and simple talent deficiencies have plagued the Steelers in their six losses. Yet the Steelers woes have gone deeper. With each passing week, the Steelers appeared to find new ways to hand opportunities to their opponents while failing to take advantage of chances handed to them.
  • The Steelers offense, flawed as it was, managed to break from that rut vs. the Bills.
The Steelers converted 2 consecutive 3rd and 1 situations on their first drive of the second quarter. This is hardly monumental feat but such plays have been in short supply thus far. On the same drive, Emmanuel Sanders took what looked to be a broken reverse and ran 25 yards down the field. That drive netted the Steelers first field goal.

On the Steelers next drive, with Ben Roethlisberger about to be sacked from the Steelers 16 yard line, Le’Veon Bell took a broken play 34 yards right up the middle. That play, and a 24 yarder to Antonio Brown, set up Roethlisberger’s touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery.

The Steelers special teams also showed they could do their part. Pittsburgh’s second drive of the 2nd half opened with a 24 yard punt return. Later, when things looked to stall, the Steelers field goal unit used a hard count to draw Buffalo off sides. Two plays later the Steelers rammed the ball down the throats of the Bills defenders to score the final touchdown of the afternoon.

Despite the flawed execution and sloppy style, the Steelers offense achieved something simple vs. the Bills – they managed to find ways to make plays in critical situations to set up the win.

Defense Defends Honor

Unlike its counterparts on offense, the Steelers defense not only turned in a strong performance, but it played with attitude. Vs. the Patriots, the Steelers defense turned in a franchise worst-performance.

Fortunately, each an every member of the defense took it personally. And that’s evident in both ways that do and don’t show up on the stat sheet.
  • William Gay, a cornerback led the team with in tackles, with two for losses
  • Nearly every running play, regardless if it gained yards, ended with the defender moving backwards
  • EJ Manuel looked dazed and confused, as the Steelers held him to 3-14 on third downs
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The 4th quarter vs. the Patriots was a nightmare for the Steelers defense that Steelers Nation will never forget. Yet, vs. Bills the Steelers defense wrote a different tale, as this sequence suggests:
And for the record, Antonio Brown returned the ensuring punt for 50 yards.

Granted, they weren’t defending Tom Brady or Calvin Johnson, but the Steelers defense dominated, to the point of securing two turnovers on the Bills final drive only to lose both due to poor officiating.

The Road From Here

In spite of all the positives, the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers are 3-6, and they “improved” to this mark at the expense of a 2-7 team. Their weaknesses still outweigh their strengths. They’ve mastered several lessons in the art of learning to lose and the burden of proof is on them to prove otherwise.

Defeating the Bills didn’t change any of that, but the victory did allow them to win back some self respect, a necessary step to winning anything else.

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Two Bills Starters Highlight Steelers Personal Mishaps

Ike Taylor left the Patriots game with a concussion. The Steelers, having doubts about his availability for today’s game vs. the Bills, did what they have done all year long:
  • They signed someone they’d cut previously and cut Isaiah Green
In this case that was DeMarcus Van Dyke. To be fair to management, unlike Stevenson Sylvester and Jonathan Dwyer, Van Dyke was waived-injured, so his is not a case of bi-polar disorder infecting Steelers personnel decisions.

But the fact that the Steelers are facing the Buffalo Bills adds irony to Pittsburgh’s latest spin of the personnel merry-go-round. And news that broke late Friday night – that offensive lineman Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams were listed as questionable for the game – only deepened the irony.

That’s because like Arizona before the, the Buffalo Bills have become sort of Pittsburgh Northeast. Look at the Bills roster and practice squad and you’ll see Steelers castoffs like Frank "The Tank"Summers, Corbin Bryant, and Dennis Dixon. But those men are just role players. The Bills have two men starter at a position area where the Steelers need the most help (from a health stand point):  Offensive line.
Urbik of course is not well known to Steelers fans, coming to Pittsburgh in 2009 Draft as one of the team’s 3rd round draft picks. Urbik didn’t play or dress in 2009. Urbik had and “under the radar” training camp in 2010 and seemingly had secured himself a roster spot, having rose above Justin Hartwig on the depth chart at center.

But then Byron Leftwich injured his leg in preseason, and the Steelers needed to carry Charlie Batch, in addition to Dixon, on their depth chart (’10 was the year of Ben Roethlisberger’s suspension.)
  • Someone had to go, and that was Urbik, whom the Steelers thought they could sneak on to the practice squad. Alas, Bills General Manager, Doug Whaley, snatched him up.
Legursky’s story with the Steelers is more well known, having established himself as one of Kevin Colbert’s undrafted rookie free agent steals.

Legursky went on to start 13 games at center or guard over three years, including Super Bowl XLV. He even did spot duty at fullback. Yet in spite of that versatility and despite no established depth at center (remember, Kelvin Beachum vs. Tennessee?), the Steelers let Legursky go to Buffalo with only a whimper (pun intended, Guy Whimper). Not only was Legursky lightly regarded by Steelers management, the Steelers press corps. didn’t even bother to note his departure.

To be fair, the Urbik and Legursky play guard, and tackle is the area where Pittsburgh needs help at this weekend and has needed help at all year long. But the fact is that more quality offensive lineman, especially versatile ones, give a team extra agility to manage injury situations.
  • The Steelers don’t have that now, in part because the Bills saw something in their personnel cast offs that Steelers management missed.
Remember that today as Mario Williams is tossing Roethlisberger around like a rag doll.

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